Friday, 28 August 2015

moniack mhor

I had drafted a post on what I expected from my writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, but I decided to delete the post, along with my expectations and head off on my writing adventure with an open mind. I hadn't a clue whether I'd fit in or be out of my depth, whether the other students would be helpful and supportive or aloof and competitive. I hadn't a clue if I'd love every minute or long for home. I set off on the 2 hour drive and put all thoughts of what might or might not happen, out of my head.

As it was, the week surpassed even my most positive expectations

The whole experience was nothing short of magical. There were nine of us rather than the expected twelve, which was a bonus straight away. Big groups are my kryptonite but nine I can live with. We talked, we laughed, we cried (well, two of us did, me included of course), we cooked, we ate. Oh God, did we eat! And we wrote a bit, too. But ultimately, we made connections that I hope will last a lifetime.

Moniack Mhor itself isn't far from Inverness, but is settled in the shadow of Ben Wyvis and surrounded by nothing but hills, trees, fields and some Highland Cows so it felt like we were miles from anywhere. We had the best tutors we could have imagined - the writers Stephen May and Marilyn Bowering - who led workshops and held tutorials that dragged our floundering storylines kicking and screaming into daylight, then moulded them into something we could actually work with. Stephen focused on general structures that we could use to write stories or apply to the scenes in our novels, whereas Marilyn forced us to look deeper at the novels we were currently writing, and let that enquiry guide our direction. Both methods together have helped me restructure what I have, and give me the confidence and focus to build on that and hopefully get the thing written.

Our days were structured so we could get the most of our time. Mornings started at 8am with bonus yoga sessions provided by Stephen's lovely wife Karen. Breakfast followed, then workshops 9.30 until lunch, which was laid out in the well-stocked kitchen that was replenished constantly, as if there were faeries at work. Afternoons between tutorials were spent walking, writing, napping, eating, drinking tea, yapping....however we saw fit to spend it. Dinner was cooked via a cooking rota that we all participated in (with ingredients and recipes provided), then the evenings usually had some form of entertainment.

Mikey Cuddihy visited on Wednesday and gave an inspiring talk about her memoir, A Conversation About Happiness, while on Thursday, Moira Forsyth from Sandstone Press came along with some wonderful tips on how to approach a publisher (she'll be expecting nine manuscripts very soon, hopefully...)

Friday night entertainment was the one thing most of us were apprehensive about - each of us reading a piece of our own work. Friday afternoon felt like the day before an exam as we all edited and printed and prepped and practiced. There was a celebratory feel to the evening as a lone piper played and we were all handed a nip of Glenmorangie to calm our nerves. Dinner was a Burns Supper of haggis, neeps and tatties, accompanied by a hilarious and heartwarming Address to the Haggis by the only Australian in the group.

The whisky clearly had an effect as we each willingly took to the chair and read our pieces. Everyone was wonderful and every piece was so different. We had everything from mental hospitals to spiritualist funerals, and heart transplants to job interviews. I am not exaggerating when I say that I cannot wait to read everyone's final piece in full.

To cap the evening off, we ended up with a guitar player in our midst so had an impromptu acoustic singalong session. I even stayed up an hour past my bedtime!!

So what now? I have renewed vigour and an idea of where I need to go. I'm working on the novel again, using what I've learned to break it down and build it up again, better, stronger. I've been reminded of what works for me - free writing, time alone, jotting down ideas, space with my thoughts. And of course I absolutely intend to go on a retreat again, my only wish being it could be with the same eight people and two tutors again.

I feel honoured to have had this experience. It has inspired me in so many ways that even as a writer, I cannot put into words. To the tutors, thank you. You've given me faith in my writing and you've shown me how to be better. I will always be grateful for you advice and encouragement. To the staff at Moniack Mhor, you are all as magical as the place itself and I hope you know how much your assistance is appreciated.  And to the eight writers who spent this weird week out of time with me, you are awesome. I loved every minute and wouldn't change a single second of it. I can hardly believe we've only known each other such a short time, it feels like its been forever. You all made it what it was and it's something that will stay with me. Love, support and friendship, always.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Some ramblings on introverts and online friendships

Originally blogged almost a year ago, this was one of my most read posts. It seems to resonate with a lot of people. I've edited it slightly with some new observations

I am very much an introvert, and I loved this article that my friend recently sent me a link to.

Now, I'm not a secret introvert as suggested by the article, I'm a loud and proud introvert (contradiction intended). I spent years assuming I was shy and wondering why I acted weird in groups, or with people I didn't know. I recall sitting beside a girl in History class, who bitched to others that I didn't speak to her, but I couldn't. I absolutely couldn't and I didn't understand why. I now know it was simply because I can't do smalltalk. I've got better over the years but even now, it wears me out. I had a large group of friends but I barely spoke when I was with them. Yet when it was just me and a couple of them, I was fine. I just can't handle groups. End of. This has never changed; I can stand up in front of 70 people and talk about recycling with just a flutter of nerves, yet I dread my monthly team meetings. There's only seven of us in the team.

The article surprised me though, as there are things I do that I didn't necessarily put down to being an introvert. I'm a writer, and I'm definitely a more succinct writer than speaker. I screen all calls; I rarely answer my mobile, I tend to leave it then gather the mental energy to call the person back. I definitely shut down if I've been active or with people too long - I feel I need to be alone and to recharge - and I get distracted very easily. If there's too much going on, be it at work or at home, I'm overwhelmed.

Being an introvert and being shy don't go hand in hand, as extroverts can be shy too. I can confidently talk to people, its just taken longer for me to develop that skill. On the plus side, it means I only have 'good quality' people in my life. By that, I mean that if a friendship is going nowhere, or if I don't click with someone, I let the relationship die a natural death. I don't force myself on folk and I don't let them force themselves on me. I simply can't afford to waste mental energy on anyone who isn't worth it. This probably makes me sound like an arse, but it makes sense. People always know where they stand. I won't pretend to be their friend then bitch about them behind their back. We're friends or we're not. And those who I class as close friends (there aren't many) are worth their weight in gold to me.

I guess many bloggers are introverts. Blogging (or any online interaction) is a great way of communicating with like-minded folk but without using up the mental energy of conversation. It's done in our own time, at our own pace and if we decide we're not clicking with someone, we just stop following their blog.

No only that, but sometimes I feel I know my blogging friends better than I know some people in real life. Take Sarah for example. I followed her recent pregnancy on her blog, and I've been following the development of her daughter Matilda too. I felt I invested more in her pregnancy and parenting experiences than I've previously done in that of friends and family, because I only see them occasionally to catch up. With Sarah, I was checking in probably about once a week, so I felt that bit more involved. And I guess with blogging there's less room for the dreaded small talk or gossip. It's a public arena yet it seems so much more intimate sometimes.

I believe that genuine friendships can be created online, and I don't think its necessary to meet someone in real life in order to class them as a friend. There was a time where I wouldn't have agreed with this, whereas now, I know from experience that it's possible.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? What about online friendships - are we 'friends' or just 'people who know each other online'?

Friday, 7 August 2015

my summer 2015 goals: update

The above photo pretty much sums up summer 2015 - not so much July, as November with a bit more daylight! Sunshine or not, though, in this post I wrote a list of goals for the summer. By summer, I mean July and August, so we're over halfway through! And here's how I'm doing...

Finish my short story course - still 4 units to go, but getting there
Save £200 towards a proof-reading course - £43.21/£200
Learn Reiki level 1- done, blogged here
Submit 12 short stories to competitions or publications - 7/12
Attend a writing retreat - booked for August
Continue to blog twice weekly - 10/16 (due to circumstance this hasn't always been possible so I'm going for an average of 2 per week which means 16 posts total - some weeks have had 1 post, some have had 3)
Submit an article to a blog or online publication - submitted a blog post to Tiny Buddha, so this is done
Make something for L's baby - ongoing
Finish clearing out the garage - ongoing (God, this is a nightmare)
*Private - work related* - done. This was an easy but faffy work thing that I finally got round to
Learn to darn - not yet but I bought a mushroom!
Use my sewing machine at least once - nope. Not sure this will happen
Dye the top with the bleach stains - not yet but I've bought the dye
Start nutrition or life coaching course - ok, so I started the crystal healing one instead, but that's ok
Get quotes from professional photographer - not yet
Do 8 weeks of yoga classes - ongoing, but an 8 week session is booked and paid for (and I've attended the first 3 weeks) for so I'm counting this as done
Plan my next tattoo - been pinning but not quite there yet

So yeah, getting there!

Do you have plans/goals for the summer? How are you getting on with them?

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

lessons in imperfection from a cat ornament

When I was a student, I loved to buy tat from charity shops (still do, but yeah...), and I came across this handsome chap in Stirling's Shelter shop. Cute, vintage, kitsch, cat. All the things I love, and for the pricely sum of 50p.

Over the years I've got rid of a lot, but this cat has stayed. What really delights me about him - although I didn't notice this until I'd had him for at least a couple of years - was that his previous owner had glued his head back on!

Nowadays, who bothers to glue things back together? If something breaks, its less hassle to to throw something away and buy another.

The Japanese word kintsugi means to put a broken item together again. They make no attempt to hide the damage though, for example by mending pottery with dust mixed with gold or silver, so that the piece proudly displays its imperfection. This imperfection illustrates its history, and makes the item more special than before, simply because it was worth mending.

Similarly, the Japanese philosophy wabi-sabi, which has no direct translation to English, is essentially a world view that acknowledges transience and imperfection. Basically, it describes a beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Doesn't a newly cut lawn look that bit more stunning if it has a couple of fallen leaves on it? Doesn't an old teddy bear look more loved if he's missing an eye or he's gone bald in patches? Doesn't a plank of wood look more interesting if it has knots?

Although I didn't notice my cat's injury for a while, now that I've noticed it, the lumpy repair on his neck is obvious. And he does feel all that bit more special because he's been repaired, so he's definitely kintsugi. (Look closely at the photo and you'll see the crack through his bow tie). How did he break? Why did he matter so much to his owner that they repaired him? I don't know but I love having that glimpse into his history. He's definitely wabi-sabi too. His repair means he's imperfect but it gives him that extra spark of charm.

These concepts have been rare in the west but I do like to think that they're creeping in, as we move subtly back to some of the old 'make do and mend' ways. The trend for upcycled furniture could loosely be classed as kintsugi, whereas Celia Pym's radical knitting is most definitely so (and incidentally was the inspiration behind my desire to learn darning!).

These philosphies remind us that everything has its own beauty, everything has a history, and life is ever-changing. How can you embrace them in your own life? Find something you love - that old one-eyed teddy, your well-worn cardi with the fraying cuffs, the chipped vintage casserole dish, your own face in a mirror. Really study it, look for the details that make it what it is. Consider whether it would mean so much to you if it were perfect. Consider what the hell perfection is, anyway.

Do you own anything that could be classed as kintsugi or wabi-sabi?

Friday, 31 July 2015

How to be a smart saver - six easy tips

**Disclaimer - I am not a qualified Financial Advisor, the below information is gleaned from my own personal experience. None of the links are sponsored or affiliate**

I think of myself as a pretty savvy saver. I make a point of saving some money every month, and the money I save works hard for me so I get a decent return. However, I do also like to keep things simple. I want a good rate, but I also want easy access. I have no desire to look into investing, and I don't want to be moving money around every few weeks. So here are my tips for becoming a smart but straightforward saver!

Pay off debt first
The jury's out on this - should you pay off all debt before considering saving, or should you should save a little while paying off? I can see both sides, but what worked for me was the latter. I was paying off 12K of debt but I also put a fiver a month into an ISA. I had absolutely no savings other than this, but seeing that balance grow, month by month, was a futher incentive to ditch the debt and save even more. But this isn't a tactic for everyone. Think long and hard about whether you'd be better chucking all money at your debt, or if a small savings account would give you a boost. But the bottom line is, the debt must be your priority.

Do your research
I'll be honest, this is really boring stuff but it needs to be considered. You want your money to work hard, so you need a good an interest rate, but also look at access; some accounts may have a good interest rate but need up to 120 days notice before a withdrawl. Some may ask for a large initial deposit, and some charge a fee for withdrawls, and many don't allow ATM withdrawls. My one-stop shop for all this stuff is Martin Lewis's Money Saving Expert website. It has the most up-to-date rates and impartial advice. I'd recommend only doing this once a year though - or less often if you can get a decent rate that lasts a couple of years. Its easy to get fatigued and overwhelmed if you switch accounts too often.

Pay yourself first
The worst way to save is to wait and see what's left at the end of the month, and put that into your savings account. Because there will never be anything left at the end of the month. The most disciplined way to save is to transfer a certain amount to your savings accounts on/around payday, so its as if you never had that money. Therefore there will be no desire to spend it, and it soon becomes habit. How much you save depends on your salary and outgoings. Usually at least 10% is a good idea. The only surefire way to know, is to do a realistic budget. You want to save a reasonable amount but at the same time you don't want to leave yourself short of cash.

Set up targeted accounts
Saving up for something in particular? A holiday? A car? A house deposit? A rainy day? Start an account for each. I have about six savings accounts and I rename them depending on what I'm saving for. Targeted accounts mean you'll stay focused and you won't get sidetracked spending money that's earmarked for one thing, on something else. Plus it means you can set specific savings goals and you'll know exactly when you've achieved them.

Consider a Stocks & Shares ISA
I could never be bothered with the faff of investing in stocks and shares themselves, but a S&S ISA is the next best thing. Interst rates on Cash ISAs (and most savings accounts) are pathetic these days, so a S&S ISA is a great low risk alternative with a gerenally decent return. A S&S ISA means your money is spread across shares in various sectors so if one sector crashes, you won't lose everything. And the best part is, you don't have to do anything. Just pay the money into your account and let a Fund Manager do the rest. To give you an idea, I took out a S&S ISA 6 years ago and paid in £500. That £500 now fluctuates between £800 and £900 on a given day. That's an impressive interest rate.

Keep up to date with changes
Sometimes the rules change, or new products are made available. For example, the ISA allowance went up to £15,240 in April 2015. Or if you're a first time buyer saving for a house, a Help-To-Buy ISA will be ideal for you - they start on 1st December (the Government will top up what you save by 25%). Money Saving Expert is a great resourse for keeping up to date with things like this aswell.

Are you a savvy saver? Do you have any tips to add?

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

please vote for my story!

I was excited to learn that my short story, Being Sophie, was shortlisted for this month's KISHBOO magazine!

KISHBOO is a monthly magazine, available for free online, or for 99p as a Kindle download. The way it works is that readers can vote for their favourite shortlisted story, and the story with the most votes wins £50!

So you know what's coming next - I'd most appreciate it if you could visit KISHBOO and vote for my story! Of course I would love it if you read it first, as well as the other stories. And if you decide youl like one of the other stories better, please vote for me anyway because I want to win, by all means vote for them instead (in the interests of fairness!). I've read the other entries and there are some good stories there so I'm certainly not expecting to walk this!

Thank you :)

Saturday, 25 July 2015

things i'm loving right now

Knitting. I'm knitting a sea-inspired baby blanket just now - I'd love the opportunity to actually sit but the sea and work on it but summer isn't being too kind to us at the moment so I'm having to be content with knitting it inside.

Vintage cup and saucer. I've been searching for a lovely cup and saucer for ages, and I finally found one in a antique shop in Ullapool! Tea tastes so much better out of a china cup, plus it makes me feel all old-fashioned and pretentious! (Also, now that I have one, I'm seeing them in charity shops everywhere, yet I could never find one before. What's with that??)

Car boot sale/charity shop finds. As well as my cup and saucer, there's been loads of yarn, some t shirts and books, plus a lovely owl pot stand and a pair of kitsch cats that I think are supposed to be egg cups?

Herbs. My outdoor mint, rosemary and thyme have flourished this year - there's loads! The basil, chives and parsley indoors haven't done so well but we don't talk about that...

The beach. I go on about the sea and the beach a lot - it's somewhere that never fails to cheer me up. I've spent a lot of time wandering along the coast and letting the fresh air clear my head. There's nowhere I'd rather be, regardless of the weather.

Reiki. Read about my first degree Reiki training here. I love Reiki; I've been doing a self-treatment every day which is helping energise me and keep things in perspective. I've also had the opportunity to do treatments on other people, which has been enjoyable and beneficial for both them and me. I love learning more about this treatment, and I love the feel of the energy running through my hands.

Birds. Like the sea, they're one of the small things in life that make me happy - be it the swallows that sit on the wire outside my office window, the tiny flock of four goldfinches I saw on an early morning walk, or the baby seagull cheeping from my neighbour's porch roof.

Cows. My spring obsession with lambs has eased until next year, so my new favourite farm animal is the cow! Specifically the stirks - no longer calves but not quite fully grown cows. I love their gentle, inquisitive nature and how they sometimes let me stroke their noses when I can get close enough to the fence!

Fizzy water. I always thought I hated fizzy water. But a few weeks back, I was really thirsty after a long walk. I felt like something fizzy but I try to avoid juice, and for some reason a chilled bottle of fizzy water appealed, so I bought one. I've pretty much been drinking it ever since.

What's good in your life right now?